Focusing on vocation in the context of social justice, science, diversity in business, or the liberal arts, the class meets once a week in late afternoons or early evenings, combining Ignatian discernment with personal stories from alumni and community leaders.
EVA BLANCO left her media job in Miami after Sept. 11, 2001, returning to California to be closer to family and friends. She's now Santa Clara's assistant dean of admissions and financial aid.
TRAVIS WALKER, political science '00, graduated from law school, then began working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, while writing award-winning plays and founding a non-profit to build boarding schools in inner cities.
SUE RENNER, marketing '87, built a career in high-tech marketing, earned a master's degree in counseling and worked with at-risk youth in San Francisco, founded a jewelry design business, and is now transitioning into the nonprofit sector. Her biggest challenge, she says, is "letting go of self-doubt"; her biggest reward, "finding my own path of contribution."
Like them, we have all probably asked ourselves, "What should I do with my life?" In the Ignatian tradition, finding our vocations means discovering our gifts, listening to our hearts for divine guidance, and reaching out to live with greater joy and meaning.
It's hard to find our vocations in a culture of consumerism, careerism, and constant commotion, hard to make time for life's deeper questions amid our daily duties and distractions. But research has identified the sense of vocation as a very real human need. A 1995 study in Life Roles, Values, and Careers found it the "most important life value" in North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia, while a study in the Journal of Research in Personality in 1997 connected the sense of vocation with better health. In his 2002 best seller, Authentic Happiness, psychologist Martin Seligman equated the sense of vocation with greater joy, meaning, and fulfillment, and he encouraged people to examine their lives to discover their own personal gifts or "signature strengths" and use them to contribute to the greater good.
To help Santa Clara students explore their own deeper questions and discern their vocations, career counselor Elizabeth Thompson '00 has developed an innovative class, "Let Your Life Speak," its title taken from Parker Palmer's book on vocation. Developed four years ago as part of Santa Clara's DISCOVER project, this class provides students with vital discernment tools they can use not only in college but throughout life. Focusing on vocation in the context of social justice, science, diversity in business, or the liberal arts, the class meets once a week in late afternoons or early evenings, combining Ignatian discernment with personal stories from alumni and community leaders.
On the first day of class Thompson introduces herself, the speakers, and the purpose of the class. Vocation, she says, is "not job training or the call to religious life," but a life of greater joy and fulfillment.
Learning from Life's Stories
Leaders in many fields have shared their stories in class, including international portrait photographer Michael Collopy; Rita Chavez Medina, the sister of Cesar Chavez; University President Paul Locatelli, S.J.; San Francisco Poet Laureate and Glide Foundation President Janice Mirikitani; as well as recent alumni who share their own frustrations and discoveries on the path to vocation. Ron André, classics and English '93, tells of his "odyssey of odd jobs" after graduation, working as a data entry clerk, a bookseller for Barnes & Noble, and a movie extra; getting a master's degree in classics, teaching high school, and working at Microsoft before becoming a State Farm insurance agent. John Bianchi J.D. '07, tells how, after majoring in liberal arts and computer science, he spent a year after graduation with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Alaska. This experience deepened his spirituality and sense of community, inspiring him to pursue a life of service. He attended Santa Clara's law school "to empower myself to empower others," and is now working in the public defender's office in Seattle, planning to establish a nonprofit to help juvenile offenders.
Stories like these reassure today's students, who are dealing with record levels of stress and anxiety as they face the monumental challenge of their futures. The class gives them role models and vital insights to guide them on their journeys. Tiffany Allen, economics and political science '05, says, "It was reassuring for all of us to hear how confused these speakers once were in their lives and to understand that they had to try many different professions, make mistakes." Speakers, too, find inspiration sharing their stories. Joan Graff, president of the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco, says "the comments of the students brought tears to my eyes. It was both surprising and moving to see how they perceived my life and work."
Asking the Right Questions
Discernment means asking the right questions. Drawing on the work of theologian Michael Himes, S.J., Thompson asks her students to consider what brings them joy, using evocative questions that can reveal our gifts and authenticity at any stage in life:
In the tradition of Ignatian discernment, Thompson helps students recognize moments of consolation and desolation, developing the inner guidance to sustain them on life's journey.
Thompson's course was "a wake-up call" for Tiffany Allen, who had planned to go to law school until she realized, through reflection, that volunteer work or internships at nonprofits made her feel "most alive and happy, a passion toward the work I was doing like I never felt with anything else." Having found her vocation in "helping, guiding, and inspiring others," she is entering Santa Clara's graduate program in counseling psychology this fall.
Grace Lee, art '05, who worked through months of frustration and uncertainty after graduation before finding a job designing online stationery, says the class showed her "that it is possible to follow your dreams and pursue what you love." Class speaker Graff says that the students brought her "a strong surge of inspiration and the knowledge that the world will be a better place because of them." And statistical research conducted this year by David Feldman, assistant professor of counseling psychology, revealed a significant increase in the students' levels of vocation, life meaning, and hope.
Perhaps the most important lesson these students learn is faith in a process much larger than themselves, a message Thompson shares with them in a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:
"Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."
Diane Dreher is professor of English at Santa Clara and the author of Your Personal Renaissance, a forthcoming book on vocation.